Editorial | February 15th, 2024

A Time for Courage

The first in a series about teaching Israel and Palestine in the BUSD

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.”

–Maya Angelou

In July of last year educators and millions of everyday people across the country were outraged when Florida modified its curriculum around slavery, to weave in a ‘good and bad people on both sides’ element to the story of 300 years of brutal dehumanization and bondage. What was obvious to all but the most ideologically driven, was that a vocal, self-righteous and empowered group of zealously proud white people had come to control the state Board of Education and were abandoning history and truth in favor of the worst kind of racially motivated identity politics.

 

To give context, the situation in Florida bears a closer look. The new curriculum mandates that students in middle school are taught that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” High school students learn that – despite rampant lynchings and race massacres including in Ocoee, Florida, there were “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans.” Apparently when the whites come to kill you, you should just acquiesce. I can’t speak for others, but I always rooted for Nat Turner.

 

And while many of us shake our heads at such a shabby and self-serving treatment of the truth, the white champions of this rewriting of history are toasting themselves across the state. At long last their kids will not have to deal with the violent, dehumanizing reality of slavery and their forebears’ possible complicity in it. 

 

Fast forward seven months to Berkeley, one-time bastion of progressive thought and haven for academic freedom. How is the Berkeley public school system doing with its own teaching of history and current events that makes some people uncomfortable? How have they reacted to their own vocal, self-righteous and empowered group of zealously proud people trying to bulldoze history and truth in favor of identity politics? It’s hard to tell. It seems they have taken an ostrich approach, perhaps thinking: if we refuse to teach about it, maybe the kids will forget it’s happening. It’s the most important event happening in the world today, whose long term consequences — and impact on our kids — can only be guessed at. 

 

Not embracing its complexities and finding a way to talk about it with kids is no better than Florida’s approach to slavery. Is it fraught with tension and pitfalls because of the dedication of a vocal and powerful minority? Of course. But inconvenient truths must be discussed if education is to be anything but an indoctrination factory for the status quo.

 

The situation is well illustrated by the comments of a Jewish parent who addressed the School Board in the past few months. The parent said their child came home with a story from Berkeley High. They were talking about the war in class and apparently the child was interrupted by another student who said: “End the occupation. It’s an apartheid state!” The child told their parent: “I never understood there were so many people who don’t like Jews.”

 

While the intent of the comment was to lament the upsurge in antisemitism on campus, what it actually showed was why our Board must not shy away from teaching about these matters in BUSD.  It is precisely the reluctance to wade into such thorny issues that allows misconceptions such as this student’s to take hold, namely the inability to differentiate between criticism of the perceived unjust policies of a nation state and racist hatred. The mission of education must be to educate children irrespective of what they are taught to believe at home, because parents are often too consumed by their own experiences and biases to give their kids an accurate and complete understanding of the world we live in.

 

There is a lot of vile antisemitism in the world and has been for centuries, and – like Islamophobia – has no doubt been on the rise since Hamas’ attack on October 7th and the disproportionate Israeli response that has followed. It’s a terrible and indefensible thing to hate someone simply because of who they are. And it was rude of the other student to interrupt and shout down the student supporting Israel. No doubt about it. But we cannot confuse frustration with the policies of Israel, which many people of conscience — including many of our Jewish friends — find to be oppressive and dehumanizing toward Palestinians, with not liking Jews. We don’t know if that student is antisemitic. They may be. But we can’t tell that by their comments. What we can tell is that they are upset and feel that the State of Israel is engaged in unjust occupation and apartheid. 

 

Obviously, society cannot rely on parents to have such nuanced and thoughtful discussions with their kids, especially when current events have put the parents in a politically and emotionally charged state. It’s the obligation of our schools to be a partner – wanted or not – in that hard work.

 

It is interesting to note that in the U.S., the percentage of Jewish-Americans who back Israel declines as the age of the respondents goes down. In other words, older Jewish-Americans are much more likely to back Israel and oppose a ceasefire, while younger American Jews are more likely to question America’s blanket support of Israel.

 

In Israel, those trends are reversed. Older Israelis are the most liberal cohort, while younger Israelis are increasingly right wing.

 

In our view, education is at the root of both of these trends. In the U.S., where freedom of thought has been traditionally prized and celebrated, and at our best, children are raised to think critically for themselves, this apparently has put many younger Jewish-Americans at odds with their parents’ views about Israel. The same exact thing has happened in Israel where the education of young people has been commandeered by extreme elements within the government. Israeli children are raised with increasingly rightwing, and at times racist dogma taught in school ( (11) Video | Facebook), resulting in high levels of indoctrination and putting them at odds with their more liberal parents and grandparents.

 

All children in our Berkeley schools deserve to be safe at all times, full stop. But that does not mean they are entitled to be free of discomfort emanating from political views they bring with them from home. I can imagine that a lot of students from white families in Alabama were uncomfortable as hell when the schools were forced to integrate and the curriculum was changed to begrudgingly allow for the humanity of their Black neighbors. But was that the time to buckle under to the racist rabble or its rightwing hate? Absolutely not.   

 

And so we are urging you School Board Directors to stand tall for our Berkeley ideals of inclusiveness, equity and justice, and to not roll back the clock on Ethnic Studies and Berkeley’s deep-seated commitment to understanding and teaching the politics of oppression. If you stand up for the rich legacy of progressive thought, the vast majority of Berkeley residents will have your back … no matter how many records requests or lawsuits are filed by the Deborah Project; no matter how many times the JCRC tries to sandbag you at a meeting by bringing Berkeley’s #1 Apologist for the Netanyahu regime (Mayor Arreguin) with them; no matter how many parents make up hateful things they say they heard at school walk-outs that no one else heard; no matter how many times good, progressive people of conscience are slandered as antisemites and Hamas supporters. 

 

Now is the time for courage. Berkeley is not Florida. You must stand up to that small but loud group of zealously proud people who are campaigning for you to abandon history and truth. Our kids are counting on you. 

 

 

“We have assembled once again … as humanists to express our solidarity with the people of Palestine.”Nelson Mandela

 

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